The Three Sisters Volcanoes: Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Sacred Landscape

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

You can’t miss them when gazing westward from anywhere in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. They are the five extinct volcanoes piercing the western landscape. Actually, two are quite small, and Native Americans call the three largest volcanoes the Three Sisters.

Two of the Three Sisters Volcanoes, Albuquerque, NM
photo Denise Ames

The volcanoes are a sacred landscape to the Pueblo Indians of the Rio Grande Valley. They believe the volcanoes and the petroglyphs pecked into the volcanic boulders (see previous blogs) provide a direct spiritual connection to both their ancestors and to the Spirit World, the place where time began.

Western Pueblos, Navajos, and Apaches believe these landforms were created by spiritual beings who lived in the ancient past. These prominent landforms were also used as landmarks that helped guide people who traveled long distances to trade or perform religious pilgrimages.

Volcano, West Mesa, Albuquerque, NM photo Denise Ames

Hispanics view the entire West Mesa and the volcanoes as an active site of religious ceremonials and as a living reminder of a cultural heritage based on powerful spiritual ties to the Earth.

Recent modern Albuquerqueans don’t seem to have the same spiritual connection to the volcanoes as non-modern people. We seem to think of the volcanoes as an interesting geological phenomenon or a great place to hike and see the views, but sacredness is not on the list. I pondered to think why this is so, and perhaps what our modern mindset is missing. 

View of Sandia Mountains, from West Mesa, Albuquerque, NM,
photo Denise Ames

I am a little unsure about how modern people can incorporate a spiritual presence into their everyday lives. For example, when modernizers see the lava rocks strewn about the sides of the volcanoes, we don’t necessarily see the rocks as alive with an animating power or energy. Many non-modern people see the rocks as alive. This would be a leap for most modern people.

By spiritual I simply mean connecting to something bigger than ourselves, something beyond the material world to a source of wonder and mystery. I don’t necessarily mean religious, but spiritual as perhaps something different than religious. So, the question I wanted to reflect upon on my hike was “What is spiritual about the volcanoes?” Can I experience a spiritual connection to this place? I am skeptical but willing to try.

One of the Three Sisters Volcanoes, Albuquerque, NM
photo Denise Ames

Although the day was breezy, I was thankful that it was not windy enough to knock me off my feet. With camera in tow and plenty of sunscreen applied, I started the slight inclined trek to the base of the volcanoes. There were a few scattered visitors but I felt lucky to have the place to myself.

I made my way to the viewing point for a wide panorama of Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountains nestled against the east side of the city. It was breathtaking. The mountains were splattered with a smattering of spring snow from a recent cold snap. They were mesmerizing. I could see why Native people thought of them as sacred and emitting spirits.

Lava flows turned to rock, West Mesa, Albuquerque, NM
photo Denise Ames

Nature has a way of tricking me, perhaps you too. I can come upon a beautiful vista and love the serene sense I feel when viewing it. But then, if I linger long enough, and keep the distractions at bay, another feeling settles in. It is a feeling that I am part of the view. I am just not gazing at an object outside of myself, something separate from me, but that view is also within me. It is an odd feeling that doesn’t happen every time, but when it does it is worth remembering.

Perhaps that feeling is similar to what Native people have expressed when they think of the volcanoes as sacred. The volcanoes are like us. When they emit death and evil in the form of lava, they are expressing a part of our destructive nature. And then when the volcanoes are spent of their destructive impulses they settle into old age. Their evil has hardened into rocks that are no longer destructive. Now they can just be skeletons of their former selves and offer us an invitation to look a little closer and deeper at their violent past and perhaps take away valuable lessons.

View of Albuquerque, NM from the West Mesa, NM, photo Denise Ames

Like the volcanoes, we are both destructive and creative. Destruction is quick, violent, and exacting. Lava destroys everything in its path. But once the destruction is over, the lava chips away and provides, thousands of years later, fertile soil or in the case here in Albuquerque, the platform for creative rock art crafted by native people. Humans are destructive as well: a hateful message uttered, a revenge sought, or the careless denigrating of institutions, such as the family and religion, that have sustained many people for centuries. As humans we are finding out that destruction is easy and quick, but creating is difficult and laborious.

Next time we see a volcano, perhaps we will think about its destructive and creative energies. And how those energies are within us as well.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 9 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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